***This is a long post but I desperately need to tell you about all of the amazing and wonderful things that happened to Matt and I last week!***
About a year ago, I had a really bad day. I was mad because I had cancer. I was mad because I was sick of all of my hats and scarves and I didn’t want to shell out another $20 for a new one. So I googled “free stuff for cancer patients” to see if I could get a free hat or scarf. I was pissed, remember? I didn’t think it was fair that I had cancer and it definitely wasn’t fair that I had to spend money on a stupid scarf. I found a blog that had a whole list of things for breast cancer patients specifically. So I explored. I found a free scarf. And I also, thankfully, stumbled upon Little Pink Houses of Hope.
LPHOH provides week-long beach retreats for breast cancer patients and their families. It was too late for me to apply last year so I marked my calendar for when applications would open this year. I applied for the couples only retreat in the Virgin Islands and the family retreat in Key West. I knew our chances were small of being selected but I figured it was worth a shot. Imagine my surprise when I got a call on my last day of treatment that a couple that had been selected for the Virgin Islands retreat weren’t going to be able to attend and, as alternates, Matt and I were now selected to go. I couldn’t believe it. We scrambled to find care for the kids, asked our schools for the time off and bought plane tickets. It was surreal. We were selected for a trip of a lifetime and we were actually going to be able to go.
Our plane touched down on St. Thomas two weeks ago. We took a cab ride across the island to the ferry that took us to St. John where we attended the retreat that truly changed our lives. We spent the week with 9 other couples who had been through what we’ve been through, who truly have been in our shoes and whom we grew to love like family. The people on the island spoiled us rotten. We were taken care of like precious jewels and loved like family. It was the best week of my life.
On our first day, we were met at the ferry dock by our lovely hosts, Jeanine and Terry and Mike and Sherry. They hugged us and welcomed us and then showed us to our home for the week. We had the privilege of staying at the Grande Bay Resort in a condo donated either by an individual owner or the resort itself. It is a gorgeous place that we would have never been able to afford on our own. We met our “roomies” for the week, Shari and Pete, and couldn’t have been more pleased to have such fun and kind people with whom to spend the week. We enjoyed cocktails at Drink and dinner at the Tap Room. All 20 of us got to know each other, laughed, ate delicious food and enjoyed yummy cocktails. The Tap Room and St. John’s Brewery are owned and run by Tim who also planned and coordinated the entire retreat. He is simply amazing. He provided us with a once-in-a-lifetime week and we are forever grateful. He’s also one of the sweetest and most genuine people I’ve ever met.
Monday started out dark and rainy. Matt and I are used to getting up at 4:45, and as it was our first day on the island, we were excited and ready to go by 6:30. Our scheduled plans had been pushed back a few hours to avoid the rain, so Matt and I grabbed our umbrellas and headed out to explore the island. We ended up hiking for two hours and quickly realized that we were truly in paradise. I hesitate to even show pictures because it just doesn’t do the island and its beauty justice. We then met our group for an island taxi tour once the rain stopped. Our guide, Leon, showed us all of the highlights of the island and let us out at certain breathtaking spots to take pictures. Sherry, one of our volunteers, took pictures the entire week. That in itself was such a blessing because I didn’t have to worry about taking pictures and I was actually in a few myself! We then went to Maho Bay for snorkeling and enjoying the beach. Snorkeling equipment was generously provided by Beach Bum. Matt and I couldn’t believe this quiet and calm and gorgeous beach was real. Matt and I ended up snorkeling the entire time because we were bound and determined to see a sea turtle. Just when we were about to head back, we saw four of them swimming and eating sea grass. Matt was even able to touch one! It was crazy good. We also saw a barracuda which was a little scary but very cool. We immediately knew we needed to figure out a way to come back to this place with the kids. The boys would love the water and the snorkeling and Olivia would be able to splash like crazy without us worrying about riptides and tons of other people. That night we enjoyed shuffleboard, cocktails and dinner provided by Cruz Bay Landing.
The rest of the week there wasn’t a raindrop in sight. It was 85-90 degrees and sunny every day and unbelievably gorgeous. Tuesday we learned how to stand up paddleboard with an instructor and equipment provided by Arawak Expeditions. I had never done this before but was excited to try. The first time up on the board was a little shaky but then I got the hang of it and really enjoyed it. Everyone in the group tried it and had a blast. We then had lunch provided by Doghouse Pub. Matt and I enjoyed a cheeseburger on a Krispy Kreme donut (the Glazed and Confused) that was out of this world. We had the afternoon to ourselves so Matt and I headed out on a hike to Honeymoon Beach where we swam and napped and relaxed. That night we had dinner on the beach provided by Beach Bar. I had the most amazing seafood all week long!
Wednesday was our relaxing day. The survivors enjoyed mimosas by the pool and massages provided by local masseuses. We were able to relax and chat and share stories and, most importantly, laugh. The caregivers enjoyed boating and snorkeling at Waterlemon Cay and had a chance to connect. We ate lunch at the pool and then had the afternoon to ourselves. A few of us rented snorkeling equipment and went to a rocky beach (I can’t remember the name!) to explore. That night each couple enjoyed a date night at a different restaurant. Matt and I were given the opportunity to eat at Waterfront Bistro. The view was amazing and the food was delicious. We celebrated our 18th anniversary a little early and enjoyed the chance to relax and connect. Other date night dinners were provided by LaTapa, Ocean Grille, Zozo’s, The Terrace, Extra Virgin and Oceans 3.
Thursday was a blast. We enjoyed a beach day at Hawk’s Nest. We snorkeled and swam and hung out in the water and chatted. For me, it sunk in that the trip was almost over and I just wanted to soak in every minute with my new family. We had lunch at the beach provided by North Shore Deli. Matt and I took the afternoon to shop. We had been provided with gift cards from local businesses (how awesome is that?) and headed out to explore the shops at Mongoose Junction. We had gift cards to Best of Both Worlds, Big Planet, Caravan Gallery, Island Fancy and Nest & Co. We bought jewelry, soaps, a stuffed sea turtle for Olivia and Under Armour St. John’s shirts for the boys. All of these shops were so happy to see us and some even took pictures with us like we were famous! The people of the island really look forward to the week when LPHOH comes and enjoys their hospitality. It was a fun afternoon. When we were in Island Fancy, we saw an Ohio State hat hanging on the wall. Turns out the couple who owns the store was from Maumee which is about 20 minutes from us! Sometimes the world is so small. That night we had dinner provided by High Tides which was, of course, delicious.
Friday was our final day of fun. We spent the day at a luxurious villa called Villa Marea. Spending the day here felt like “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”…remember that show? It was out of this world. Check out this video to see the awesomeness. I still can’t believe we were able to spend the day there. We did yoga provided by Do Yoga St. John. We swam in the gorgeous pool, had a delicious lunch, listened to Louie sing and play guitar on Steely Dan’s guitar, took in the unbelievable views and had our pictures taken by a professional photographer, Anne Bequette. She put us at ease and even made my husband smile for a picture! I can’t wait to see the results. That night we enjoyed a sunset cruise on the Kekoa Luxury Sailboat. This sailboat charter company is a family-owned charter and they even build their own boats! We enjoyed cocktails and appetizers and music and the ocean breeze. We hula-hooped, danced and shared our favorite moments of the week. We cried as we shared how the week had changed our lives. We cried because we had become family and would be leaving the next day. The sailboat took us right back to the beach where we had dinner provided by Rum Hut. We said our goodbyes, gave final hugs and headed back to our room for our last night of sleep before we headed home.
The best part of the week, besides the amazing adventures and beauty, was the people. Jeanine is the survivor who started LPHOH. She was energetic and genuine and my new bestie. Terry, her husband, was hilarious and gentle and sweet. Mike and Sherry, the other volunteer couple for the week, were fun and funny and kind. There were five women on the retreat with stage 4 breast cancer: Lisa, Robin, Jolene, Miriam and Elaine. If I’m honest, at first it was difficult for me to hear their stories because they started out just like me. But as I got to know them, and listened to their stories, I was empowered and inspired by all of them. Lisa with her spunk, Robin with her quiet strength, Jolene with her zest for life, Miriam with her inner and outer beauty shining through and Elaine with her optimism and kindness. They are fighting each day, they are vivacious and full of life. To me, each and every one of them is so beautiful, so full of life, so courageous. Shannon, so young and beautiful, has the exact same type of cancer as me and it was nice to talk with her about treatments and side effects and life. Shari, my “roomie”, is a mother of two who discovered her cancer when her daughter was only 7 months old. It was comforting to talk cancer with someone who had been through it too. The caregivers, Alyssa, John, Joe, Louie, John, Earl and Pete were so kind and sweet and genuine and obviously very in love with their wives. The love in St. John was palpable and comforting.
I can’t even put into words what this week meant to me. It was exactly what we needed to rejuvenate and relax and enjoy some serious fun. It was a chance for us to connect with others who truly knew what we have been through. We discovered a new family that I know will be forever a part of our lives. Matt and I were able to reconnect in a way that seems impossible at home. I was able to realize that I’m not alone and was able to connect with other survivors in a way I hadn’t been able to on my own. Matt was able to connect with other caregivers and have fun. We were spoiled and cherished and taken care of completely. There will never be enough thank-yous for what we were given.
If you are a survivor or know someone who is, I highly encourage you to apply. If you are interested, please consider visiting Little Pink and making a donation to this wonderful organization. I know there are so many worthy charities, and helping people enjoy a week in paradise might not seem life-changing, but I promise you it is. I am forever changed for the better and healed mentally by the week LPHOH provided to Matt and me.
Thank you, LPHOH, from the bottom of my heart. I am forever grateful.